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Lawrence USD 497 adaptive triathlon is ‘a blast’ for students, educators and spectators

Lawrence USD 497 adaptive triathlon is ‘a blast’ for students, educators and spectators

As 45 middle and high school student-athletes exited buses at Lawrence High School on May 3 in preparation for the Pat Grzenda Triathlon, dozens of spectators cheered in anticipation of the competition. 

But they weren’t necessarily cheering for one particular student-athlete. No, they were cheering for the entire crew of special education students who were about to swim, bike and run their way into the winner’s circle. 

“It’s pretty good mojo when they get off that bus,” said Brad Stoll, an adaptive physical education teacher for Lawrence Unified School District 497 who helps organize the triathlon. 

The event is named for Pat Grzenda, a former adaptive physical education teacher who retired from the district in 2011 after serving students for 34 years. Grzenda plays a key role in the triathlon by helping hand out medals to all participants, Stoll said. 

The triathlon brings together adaptive PE students from Lawrence’s four middle schools and two high schools. 

The district’s two adaptive PE teachers – Stoll and Jayme Savage – serve about 100 K-12 students districtwide. 

“We modify the PE curriculum for students with cognitive and physical disabilities,” Stoll said. 

Stoll and Savage were looking for a way to honor Grzenda and decided the adaptive triathlon was a perfect way to do so. Stoll worked with Grzenda for about 15 years, he said. 

Stoll serves students at Southwest Middle School, West Middle School, Lawrence High School and several elementary schools. He has worked for Lawrence USD 497 for about 25 years. He is also the head baseball coach at Lawrence High. 

Savage serves students at Lawrence Free State High School, Billy Mills Middle School, Liberty Memorial Central Middle School and several elementary schools. She began her career at Lawrence USD 497 as a general education health and PE teacher at Free State. After serving in that role for seven years, Savage became an adaptive PE teacher. She is also the head volleyball coach at Free State. 

This was the fourth year of the triathlon. The first one took place in May 2019. However, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the event was canceled in 2020. 

During the adaptive triathlon, student-athletes – yes, they are all athletes in the eyes of spectators – swim between two and four laps in the Lawrence High School pool, ride stationary bikes for eight minutes and end by running between one and four laps around the school’s track. 

Some student-athletes compete in all three events, while others participate in one or two of the events. 

“We cater it to their unique needs,” Savage said. “We want to set them up for success in every way possible.” 

Some of the student-athletes use wheelchairs because of physical and mobility issues. Others have been diagnosed with autism or have developmental or intellectual conditions. 

The event wouldn’t be the huge success that it is without help from community members, businesses and organizations, faculty members from the district and students. Even athletes from The University of Kansas come to volunteer, Savage said. 

“It seems to be growing every year,” she said. 

Stoll added: “We have a ton of volunteers from the community. About 75 to 100.” 

This year, real estate agents from Stephens Real Estate volunteered and provided snacks. There are drink stations and a healthy snack table for student-athletes. 

Student council members from Free State and students from the two high school’s Interpersonal Skills classes joined the “hype squad” to cheer on participants. The Interpersonal Skills classes help foster a reciprocal relationship between general education students and students with special needs, according to Savage. 

The feedback that Stoll and Savage receive from participants is all positive. 

“There is a large sense of pride that they finish it,” Stoll said. “It really boosts their self-esteem. It’s good for their social-emotional well-being.” 

While Stoll isn’t a big fan of the “everyone-gets-a-trophy” mentality, he is perfectly happy to see all the district’s adaptive PE students who participate in the event receive a medal after they cross the finish line.  

The medal ceremony takes place in Lawrence High School’s gymnasium. Each student is placed on risers and awarded a medal. 

At this year’s medal ceremony, Leah McMahan, an eighth grader at Billy Mills Middle School, was all smiles when a medal was placed around her neck. She did a celebratory jump high into the air and yelled, “This is the best day of my life!” Leah topped that off with a cartwheel. 

“Every single time, their actions are priceless,” Savage said. “They are just beaming. The entire day is an absolute feel-good day. Everybody leaves feeling good, revived and rejuvenated.” 

The smile on each student’s face during the medal ceremony is one of the reasons Stoll keeps the event going. 

“If you were to see that medal ceremony, you would be counting the days until the next one,” he said. “It (the triathlon) is a blast. It’s a great day. It’s a great way to honor my friend, and it’s an awesome experience to see the kids having an absolute blast.” 

Posted: May 11, 2023,
Comments: 0,
Author: Ann Bush

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